ISKCON and Varnasrama-dharma: A Mission Unfulfilled
On the eleventh of July, 1966, in New York, Srila Prabhupada incorporated the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. By then, Prabhupada had already discovered an audience for his exposition of Srimad Bhagavatam, an expositon he characterised as ‘a cultural presentation for the respiritualisation of the entire human society’ (Bhag. Canto 1, Preface). In a further step toward the culture of ‘respiritualisation’, he established ISKCON. ISKCON was to be an exemplary society, within which the culture of Srimad-Bhagavatam would be realised and by which it would be spread to the rest of the world.
While that much has always been bedrock truth to ISKCON’s members, it is a fact that over ISKCON’s thirty-three years, their ideas of what exactly ISKCON is, in terms of its internal articulation, and of how it should relate itself to the surrounding society have been fluid. The ideas of its members have undergone changes. It seems that even Prabhupada’s ideas changed.
The reason for this unsettled state has to do with the accommodations that theory must make to reality. This is recognised in Prabhupada’s own tradition by the maxim that even Absolute Truth must be fine-tuned to the relativities of desa-kala-patra – ‘the circumstantial environments of place, object and time’ (Bhag.1.6.26-30, purport). The often hard-won expertise in doing this is what we call ‘wisdom’ (in Sanskrit, vijnana). In the application of principle to practice we frequently must have recourse to the method of ‘trial-and-error.’ ‘You learn from experience,’ Prabhupada is often quoted as saying. ‘And experience means you make mistakes.’
I hope to acquaint the reader with part of the history of our experience, of our mistakes. I hope you will also find exhibited herein the beginnings of a little hard-won wisdom. I also hope you will get a fair idea of some of the difficulties we are confronting.
To understand these matters, one needs to become acquainted with two contrasting social ideals, or models, transmitted to us by Srila Prabhupada. The first is that of a society of Vaisnavas, of transcendental, liberated devotees who conduct themselves spontaneously in accord with the principles called sanatana-dharma. The second is that of a society of materially conditioned human beings who strictly conduct themselves in obedience to the injunctions of the Vedas under the system called varnasrama-dharma.
To understand both systems, we need to be clear about what is meant when we say that someone is bound or conditioned, on the one hand, and liberated or transcendental, on the other. This is presented clearly in the Bhagavad-gita (the entire fourteenth chapter is devoted to this exposition). To be a bound or conditioned soul means to be bound or conditioned by the three gunas, or ‘modes’ of material nature; they are termed sattva-guna, the mode of goodness, or purity; rajo-guna, the mode of passion; and tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance, or darkness.
The three modes are most readily recognisable in the tripartite cycle of nature: We see that things come into being, they endure for a while, and then they undergo destruction. Then the products of destruction furnish the raw material for a new phase of creation as the cycle begins again. In the Vedic understanding, these three phases exemplify fundamental categories for understanding the material world. When things are being created, nature is said to be acting in the mode of passion, rajo-guna. When things are being maintained, nature is acting in the mode of goodness, sattva-guna. And when things are undergoing destruction, nature is acting in the mode of ignorance, tamo-guna.
According to the Bhagavad-gita, these same modes also function to determine, or condition, the human personality. Thus we have a three-fold psychological typology. The mode of goodness is manifest by an attitude that is detached, dispassionate and interested in knowledge for its own sake. The mode of passion is evident in the hankering and longings that impel strenuous efforts to obtain objects of desire. The mode of ignorance is manifest in apathy, indifference, obliviousness and bewilderment. When, for example, consciousness is conditioned by sattva-guna, it will be alert and attentive (toward nearly any subject presented) and, at the same time, detached and disinterested. Consciousness conditioned by rajo-guna is excited and narrowly focused upon the object of desire. Consciousness conditioned by tamo-guna is unaware, inattentive, easily distracted and disposed toward chronic misperception.
I suspect that most of us can recognise these three psychological states from our own experience. We have probably spent some time in each of the modes. All three modes are present in each person, and among them there is always ‘a competition for supremacy,’ as the Bhagavad-gita (14.10) says. Nevertheless, there is a tendency for a particular mode or combination of modes to predominate in a given individual, conducting him in its own programmatic manner to its characteristic end. Thus, the Bhagavad-gita says that the mode of goodness conditions a person to happiness or satisfaction, and it results in knowledge. The mode of passion conditions one to selfishly motivated activity, and it results in misery (because passionate desires never cease multiplying and goading us into action, never producing satisfaction). The mode of ignorance binds one to delusion, and it results in systematic delusion or madness.
Prabhupada characterised the three ‘pure types’ of the modes like this: ‘One is happy, another is very active, and another is helpless’ (Bg. 14.6, purport).
We have all encountered various organised structures of thought – whether cultural, philosophical, religious, scientific or ideological – which present systems of abstract categories by means of which we can apprehend and understand the world. When we school ourselves in such a system – often trying to get inside of it by the method of sympathetic projection or Hineinfühlung – we sometimes find that the system illuminates or makes intelligible certain areas of experience that we had not before particularly noticed or considered relevant. If we then apply that system to our practical endeavours and find ourselves newly enabled to deal with the world in a manner that seems consistently fruitful and productive, we award the system that highest of accolades, we call it truth.
Thus it was for me – and many devotees – with the Bhagavad-gita, as Prabhupada presented it. I looked at society – and at myself – through the lenses of the Bhagavad-gita, and once the gunas had been pointed out, I could see them plainly. While these categories might not be fruitful to the endeavours of an atomic scientist or an agronomist, say, they were indeed germane to the goal of most who were attracted to ISKCON: We were seeking liberation, transcendence. And transcendence meant, concretely, to transcend the modes of material nature. This was possible, Prabhupada said, for anyone:
… if one wants, he can develop, by practice, the mode of goodness and thus defeat the modes of ignorance and passion … . Although there are these three modes of material nature, if one is determined he can be blessed by the mode of goodness, and by transcending the mode of goodness he can be situated in pure goodness, which is called the vasudeva state, a state in which one can understand the science of God.
(Bg. 14.10, purport)
The initial result of the proper culture of Krsna consciousness should be the disappearance in the practitioner of the symptoms of the modes of ignorance and passion. Lust, greed, anger, and the like should vanish from the heart. In this way, one becomes established in the mode of goodness. The mode of goodness is the existential condition necessary for a person to be able to understand and experience spiritual reality. Thus the mode of goodness is the material platform, the launching pad, as it were, from which one can make the final voyage into transcendence, where there is neither creation nor destruction, but everlasting existence, or, in other words, pure, unalloyed sattva.
In this way, the theory of the modes provided devotees a road map of the material world, with the way out clearly marked.
The theory of the modes also provided the basis for another set of categories, that of the four varnas. Just as the human body is equipped by nature with head, arms, belly, and legs, so the social body is constituted by the four occupational groups: the brahmanas, who comprise the thinkers and teachers (head); the ksatriyas – the governors and protectors (arms); the vaisyas – the producers and traders (belly); and the sudras – the workers and general assistants (legs). Every society requires the specific contribution of these specialists in thinking, governing, producing and working. Krsna states in the Bhagavad-gita (4.13) that this ordering is generated by God, in such a way that each person is naturally disposed toward a particular category by virtue of guna (the controlling mode of nature) and karma (specialised activity and means of livelihood).
The system in which guna and karma thus determine varna is called daiva-varnasrama-dharma, the divinely established system. Prabhupada explicitly contrasts this godly system with the standard Hindu caste system, in which birth is the sole determinant of membership; Prabhupada calls that asura-varnasrama-dharma, or the diabolically created system (see, e.g., the purport to Cc. Madhya 3.6). Prabhupada and his predecessor teachers condemned this hereditary system as a corruption of the authentic system, viewing it as the major source of social injustice and turmoil in India. In several lectures Prabhupada even traces the cause of the partitioning of India back to the injustices spawned by the degraded principle of ‘hereditary brahmanism’ (see, e.g., lecture on Bhag. 1.2.2: Rome, 26 May 1974).
A brahmana must factually be in the mode of goodness, for varna is determined by guna. A good way to think of the system is to imagine the gunas distributed along a continuum, with goodness at one end, ignorance at the other, and passion in the middle. At a somewhat arbitrary line when goodness becomes sufficiently mixed with passion the demarcation between brahmana and ksatriya occurs. Similarly, when passion becomes sufficiently mixed with ignorance, there is a demarcation between ksatriya and vaisya. When ignorance sufficiently predominates over passion there is a division between vaisya and sudra. The individuals situated in the boundary regions could, in principle, be occupationally engaged on one side or the other, according to variables such as education, training or aptitude.
The categories of the gunas and of the varnas are important in understanding what Prabhupada conceived as a primary social mission of ISKCON. Once in the early 1970s I was present when the press interviewed Prabhupada after his arrival at a New York airport. A reporter asked, ‘Why have you come to the West?’ ‘I have come’, Prabhupada replied, ‘to give you a brain. Your society’, he continued, ‘is headless.’ Using the analogy of the human body, he explained the articulation of human society into four varnas. He then asserted that modern Western society was malformed. ‘There are a few vaisyas and everyone else is sudra.’ In other words, those now engaged in research and education, in government and defence, are, knowingly or unknowingly, in the employ of a handful of vaisyas. (Prabhupada’s perception is perhaps supported by the report that in America, five percent of the families now control ninety percent of the wealth.) There are no proper brahmanas or ksatriyas.
Prabhupada’s intention was to re-create a class of genuine brahmanas. This would help rectify the deformities of modern society and ameliorate the spiritual, psychological, social, political and ecological problems spawned by a hypertrophy of economic development and other outgrowths of unrestrained rajo-guna. Prabhupada notes:
‘Modern civilization is considered to be advanced in the standard of the mode of passion. Formerly, the advanced condition was considered to be in the mode of goodness’.
(Bg. 14.7, purport)
Genuine brahmanas, he hoped, would help reset the priorities of advanced civilisation.
Yet Prabhupada’s mission of creating brahmanas was in a sense derivative, a kind of automatic by-product of the primary mission of producing Vaisnavas. The word vaisnava in the strictest sense denotes a pure devotee of God, one who is accordingly transcendental to all the modes of nature. Brahmanas, however, are conditioned by the mode of goodness, and Prabhupada wanted to produce liberated souls. Such liberated Vaisnavas are more advanced than even brahmanas. Nevertheless, in society his Vaisnavas would function primarily as brahmanas.
It should be recognised that historically speaking the Vaisnava traditions in India have all propagated a socially and spiritually radical teaching. Vaisnavism fostered the spiritual enfranchisement of previously disenfranchised groups, and, in so doing, undercut the spiritual (and social) prerogatives of the hereditary brahminical caste. Hence in the Bhagavad-gita (9.32) Krsna cites groups traditionally considered unqualified for spiritual advancement – he mentions women, vaisyas and sudras – and says that by practising devotion to Him they can ‘attain the supreme destination.’ In the Bhagavatam (3.33.6) it is stated that even an outcaste (svadah – a dog-eater), if engaging in devotional practices, becomes immediately qualified to perform Vedic sacrifice (traditionally, of course, the monopoly of brahmana males).
Such statements reflect the conviction that bhakti-yoga, devotional service to Krsna, is so spiritually powerful that it can quickly uplift even the most morally and spiritually debased people. Thus facilitated, one does not need to spend many lifetimes transmigrating up the caste hierarchy to reach the brahminical platform. Bhakti-yoga can take sudras, and those even less qualified, and transform them into Vaisnavas and brahmanas. Prabhupada’s own Bengali Vaisnava tradition, as reformed by Caitanya at the beginning of the sixteenth century, paid great respect to this spiritual egalitarianism. So schooled, Prabhupada came to try out this principle in the West – in the United States in the 1960s. It was, of necessity, a kind of experiment.
Prabhupada discovered, rather to his surprise, that the main audience for his teachings tended to be drawn from the counterculture, and Prabhupada was not impressed by the counterculture. He described hippies in various places as ‘morose’ (Bhag. 4.25.11, purport), ‘distressed’, ‘wretched’, ‘unclean’, ‘without shelter or food’ (Bhag. 4.25.5, purport), ‘irresponsible and unregulated’ (Bhag. 5.6.10, purport) ‘lying idle, without any production’ (Bg. lecture, 1976), and so on. We should recognise this as a precise catalogue of the characteristics of tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance. When, in 1971, Prabhupada remarked to Kenneth Keating, the then American ambassador to India, that his service to America was ‘turning hippies into happies’ (Letter to Damodara: 3 December, 1971), Prabhupada was, in a witticism, stating that he was taking people in the mode of ignorance and elevating them to the mode of goodness.
Early after his arrival in America, Prabhupada wrote of his mission in these terms:
Though a person be even the most sinful man, he can at once be purified by sys-tematic contact with a pure Vaisnava. A Vaisnava, therefore, can accept a bona fide disciple from any part of the world without any consideration of caste and creed and promote him by regulative principles to the status of a pure Vaisnava who is transcendental to brahminical culture. The system of caste, or varnasrama-dharma, is no longer regular even amongst the so-called followers of the system. Nor is it now possible to re-establish the institutional function in the present context of social, political and economic revolution. Without any reference to the particular custom of a country, one can be accepted to the Vaisnava cult spiritually, and there is no hindrance in the transcendental process.
(Bhag. 2.4.18, purport)
Here, Prabhupada expresses his doubts about the feasibility of a varnasrama system. Yet even without it, he thought he could produce Vaisnavas who could perform the brahminical function of spiritual guide to the people. He makes the same points emphatically in an early Bhagavad-gita lecture:
So at the present moment, there is no possibility of persons following the principles of varnasrama-dharma, either here or anywhere … . Therefore this is the panacea, to engage everyone in Krsna consciousness, chanting Hare Krsna. He comes above the highest principle of brahmanism. This is the greatest gift to the humanity, that even [if] he is in … the most degraded position, he can be raised to the highest position simply by chanting. This is the only remedy. Now you cannot again introduce this system of varnasrama. It is not possible. But if one takes to Krsna consciousness, automatically he becomes immediately a brahmana and above the brahmanas. A Vaisnava is above the brahmanas.
(Lecture on Bg. 3.18-30: Los Angeles, 30 December 1968)
It is also clear that by 1974, Prabhupada had changed his mind about instituting the varnasrama-system. One major reason for his doing so is clearly disclosed in this 1977 conversation concerning a sannyasi who had fallen down from his celibacy vows:
Prabhupada: Just like our [name withheld]. He was not fit for sannyasa but he was given sannyasa. And five women he was attached, and he disclosed. Therefore varnasrama-dharma is required. Simply show-bottle will not do. So the varnas-rama-dharma should be introduced all over the world, and –
Satsvarupa: Introduced starting with ISKCON community?
Prabhupada: Yes. Yes. Brahmanas, ksatriyas. There must be regular education.
Hari-sauri: But in our community, if … we’re training up as Vaisnavas …
Hari-sauri: … Then how will we be able to make divisions in our society?
Prabhupada: Vaisnava is not so easy. The varnasrama-dharma should be established to become a Vaisnava. It is not so easy to become Vaisnava.
Hari-sauri: No, it’s not a cheap thing.
Prabhupada: Yes. Therefore this should be made. Vaisnava, to become Vaisnava, is not so easy. If Vaisnava, to become Vaisnava is so easy, why so many fall down? It is not easy.
And later in the same conversation:
Hari-sauri: Where will we introduce the varnasrama system, then?
Prabhupada: In our society, amongst our members.
Hari-sauri: But then if everybody’s being raised to the brahminical platform…
Prabhupada: Not everybody. Why you are misunderstanding? Varnasrama, not everybody brahmana.
Hari-sauri: No, but in our society practically everyone is being raised to that platform. So then one might ask what is …
Prabhupada: That is – Everybody is being raised, but they’re falling down.
(Room Conversation: Mayapura, 14 February 1977)
It had become clear to Prabhupada, after some years of experience in the West, that the elevation of his followers to the brahminical platform of goodness, what to speak of the Vaisnava transcendental platform, was not going to happen universally or swiftly. His earliest hopes were unfulfilled.
Since the time Prabhupada began speaking extensively about implementing varnasrama dharma, there has been much discussion in ISCKON on the way to go about it. I can report that there is still little, if any, consensus. In 1981 one leader, convinced that ‘after ten years of rigorous thought’ he had it figured out, published what he considered an authoritative 215-page book to persuade ‘the intelligent leaders and thinkers of modern society’ to embrace the varnasrama revolution. The Varnasrama Manifesto for Social Sanity by Harikesa Swami is, I find, spectacularly unpersuasive, and I can best characterise it by borrowing Alan Greenspan’s phrase ‘irrational exuberance.’ This now famous expression was used by the American Federal Reserve Chairman to describe market investors in the grip of a foolish and dangerous over-confidence. The phrase aptly fits this so-called Manifesto. It should be noted that the work was so controversial within ISKCON that ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission – of which Harikesa Swami was a member – passed a resolution in 1982 disowning the work, stating that it ‘represents the realisation of the author and does not represent the official view or policies of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.’ And in 1996, the author himself issued an apologetic statement that concluded, ‘I have grown and matured in my conceptions and also become more realistic and less idealistic in my viewpoint. Therefore even I do not stand anymore behind some of the concepts mentioned in the book and I feel sorry that I wrote some of the things that I wrote.’
I also have my own views on the application of varnasrama-dharma, for I too have thought about the subject, but I assure you, that whatever I speak or write will not go uncontested by someone else in ISKCON.
Nevertheless, I will venture here to propose the major reasons why ISKCON is having such a difficult time coming to grips with this matter. The first and foremost is that ISKCON – I put it starkly – has no brain. Or, at least the brain it has is underdeveloped.
You will recall that Prabhupada originally thought that ISKCON would perform the brahminical function for the rest of society – ‘I have come to give you a brain.’ Prabhupada based this effort on books. By books he could transmit the Vedic heritage, and through books he could instruct and train large numbers of followers, who, by studying his writings systematically and practising their teachings, could advance to the mode of goodness and beyond. At the same time, by having those same followers distribute the books to others, Prabhupada would engage them in preaching to the general public. Book distribution is one type of sankirtana, congregational glorification of God, and sankirtana is described in scripture as the particular form of sacrifice authorised for this age. Moreover, devotees would be able to maintain themselves and their activities by donations received through book distribution. In this way, ISKCON members would perform the six engagements enjoined upon a brahmana: yajana, yajana, pathana, pathana, dana and pratigraha. A brahmana performs sacrifice and engages others in sacrifice, studies the Vedas and teaches the Vedas, gives in charity and receives in charity.
We have already noted Prabhupada’s disappointment when many devotees turned out to have great difficulty in steadily following the strict principles of Krsna consciousness. Another related difficulty, was also noted by Prabhupada. For example, this exchange took place during a 1972 lecture:
Prabhupada: Similarly, the GBC member means they will see that in every temple these books are very thoroughly being read and discussed and understood and applied in practical life. That is wanted, not to see the vouchers only, ‘How many books you have sold, and how many books are in the stock?’ That is secondary. … Now, suppose you go to sell some book and if somebody says, ‘You have read this book? Can you explain this verse?’ then what you will say? You will say, ‘No. It is for you. It is not for me. I have to take money from you. That’s all.’ Is that very nice answer?
Devotee: No, Srila Prabhupada.
Prabhupada: Then? ‘We have written this book for your reading, not for our reading. We are simply collect money.’ That’s all.
(Lecture on Bhag. 2.9.2: Melbourne, 5 April 1972)
Prabhupada often brought up the point when a devotee seemed ignorant of a verse:
Do you remember, any one of you, this verse from the Bhagavad-gita? Eh? But you don’t read. So I am writing all these books simply for selling, not for reading. This is not good. And if somebody asks you, ‘You are so much eager to sell your books. Do you read your books?’ Then what you will say? ‘No, sir, we don’t read. We sell only. Our Guru Maharaja writes, and we sell.’ That is not good business. You must read. Why I am writing so many books?
(Lecture on Bhag. 1.16.24: Hawaii, 20 January 1974)
And, in an exchange in which Prabhupada implicitly links karma and guna in his student:
Prabhupada: You do not read Bhagavad-gita, you are publishing for selling. It will be read by others. We are simply to make money? These [the qualities of a brahmana] are in the Bhagavad-gita. Don’t you read it?
Devotee: Yes, I read it. The qualities of a brahmana is given, along with the qualities of all the other varnas.
Prabhupada: We have [in ISKCON] – taking sacred thread [who] has qualities less than sudra. Camaras, cobblers. Camara means expert in skin. I am white, I am black, I am this, I am that. That is camara . Expert in skin.
(Morning Walk: Vrndavana, 16 March 1974)
I know from my own experience how sankirtana in America tended to become less and less of a brahminical preaching activity and more and more of a vaisya commercial activity, with books eventually being replaced by secular paraphernalia. This shift from preaching
to fund-raising after Srila Prabhupada’s demise has been well documented by E. Burke Rochford in Hare Krishna in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986). While the movement prospered financially, it declined spiritually. Prabhupada’s misgivings proved sound.
In 1987 ISKCON in America fortunately changed course. The North American leaders resolved to stop all sales of secular items by the temples and to return them to what was, in effect, a brahminical mode of maintenance, depending mainly upon donations from the congregation and working residents. All the temples in North America quickly went broke. However, there has been since then a slow but steady recovery, both spiritual and financial. Both depend, in my view, on turning the temples into exemplary brahminical institutions. The brief history I have recounted illustrates the truth – and the prescience – of Prabhupada’s perception.
Let me note another important indication of ISKCON’s failure to organise brahminical training. In 1976 Prabhupada ordered a gradated system of examinations to be instituted in ISKCON. To this day this order is unfulfilled.
From a letter Prabhupada had his secretary send out to the GBC to convey his directions:
Re: Examinations for awarding titles of Bhakti-sastri, Bhakti-vaibhava, Bhakti-vedanta and Bhakti-sarvabhauma.
… Srila Prabhupada has requested me to write you in regard to the above examinations which he wishes to institute. Here in India many persons often criticise our sannyasis and brahmanas as being unqualified due to insufficient knowledge of the scriptures. Factually, there are numerous instances when our sannyasis and brahmanas have fallen down often due to insufficient understanding of the philosophy. This should not be a point of criticism nor a reason for falldown, since Srila Prabhupada has mercifully made the most essential scriptures available to us in his books. The problem is that not all the devotees are carefully studying the books, the result being a fall down or at least unsteadiness.
His Divine Grace therefore wishes to institute examinations to be given to all prospective candidates for sannyasa and brahmana initiation. In addition he wishes that all present sannyasis and brahmanas also pass the examination. Awarding of these titles will be based upon the following books:
Bhakti-sastri – Bhagavad-gita , Nectar of Devotion, Nectar of Instruction, Isopanisad, Easy Journey To Other Planets, and all other small paperbacks, as well as Arcana-paddhati (a book to be compiled by Nitai Prabhu based on Hari-bhakti-vilasa on Deity worship)
Bhakti-vaibhava – All of the above plus the first six cantos of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Bhakti-vedanta – All of the above plus cantos seven through twelve of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Bhakti-sarvabhauma – All the above plus the entire Caitanya-caritamrta.
Anyone wishing to be initiated as a brahmana will have to pass the Bhakti-sastri exam and anyone wishing to take sannyasa will have to pass the Bhakti-vaibhava examination as well. This will prevent our Society from degrading to the level of so many other institutions where, in order to maintain the Temple, they accept all third class men as brahmanas. Any sannyasis or brahmanas already initiated who fail to pass the exams will be considered low class or less qualified. Anyone wishing to be second initiated will sit for examination once a year at Mayapura. Answers will be in essay form and authoritative quotations will be given a bigger score. During the exams books may not be consulted.
Srila Prabhupada wishes to begin this program at this year’s Mayapura meeting. He requests that you all send your opinions and comments here immediately so that everything may be prepared in time.
Letter to ‘All Governing Body Commissioners’
( Nellore, South India, 6 January 1976)
A Bhakti-sastri examination was held in Mayapura in 1977 (a year late), but after Prabhupada’s demise later that same year, the examinations soon disappeared. Only within in the last five years or so have Bhakti-sastri courses and examinations been regularised in some places in ISKCON. To this day neither curricula nor examinations exist for the other three degrees.
Finally, let me briefly note a second major reason ISKCON has had difficulty understanding and instituting varnasrama-dharma. This is the fact that the system can neither be understood nor practised within the material and conceptual framework of an industrial society. Prabhupada taught that the modern industrial economy was artificial, unnatural, and harmful to the human and non-human world. In one way or another it would one day have to be sized-down and scaled back. Humanity would have to develop a new economy, in which the family would be restored as a unit of production and in which local self-sufficiency – most importantly in the matter of food supply – would become a major value. Therefore, from the very beginning Prabhupada wanted ISKCON to establish self-sufficient, rural communities, not only to construct the material basis necessary for varnasrama-dharma, but also to provide working examples of an alternative when the inevitable transition to a neo-agrarian economy began to impose itself upon the industrialised world.
ISKCON has established a number of these rural communities in advanced industrial countries. Many devotees have moved to them to ‘learn to live off the land’ and practise ‘plain living and high thinking.’ Yet over the course of time these projects have evolved largely into suburban-style Hare Krsna communities. We still await the self-sufficient agrarian community in practice. Although there are social and economic reasons why this ideal has failed in practice, I suspect a necessary condition for its future success will be the contribution of genuine brahmanas, whose creation is still ISKCON’s unfulfilled mission.
My proposal, therefore, for establishing varnasrama-dharma in ISKCON, and even in the society at large, is first of all to take the first step and do everything needed to form a proper community of brahmanas. According to Bhagavad-gita (18.42), two of the traits evinced by brahmanas are jnana and vijnana, that is, they have genuine knowledge of the Absolute Truth and they posses the wisdom to apply that knowledge appropriately. If this first step is taken, and ISKCON is thus given a brain, then I am sure we shall be in a better position to know where to go further.
I am happy to report that a movement is gaining strength among the leaders to make ISKCON an organisation primarily dedicated to education and training. If we continue in this way, I am sure we will become eligible to receive Prabhupada’s legacy and empowered to convey it to the rest of humankind.